Here Lies the Whole World After One Peculiar Mode


I love supers. I sit and I watch them and I get caught up in all the awesome and I wish I could do all those cool supernatural things too - it's like standing on the edge of a tall building and feeling sick with the height and wishing you could jump off and fly, at the same time. But when the movie is done and I get up and go away, and people ask me if I enjoyed the film, my gut answer is always "No."  And I don't think it's because of plot or characters, or anything like that.  It is more fundamental and visceral than that, and consequently far harder to explain.  But I think that I have finally cobbled together some sensible explanation for why I am, at bottom, always disappointed by the superhero movies.
there is no god
You may be inclined to either mindlessly agree, or kick back and say that is the statement of a picky Christian trying to cram Christianity into everything.  Well, try not to do either.  The modern superhero films are almost purely humanistic: these people are genetically manufactured with highly squiffy ethics that we quickly brush under the rug, they are always looked upon as sub-human even while possessing super-human powers, and they are almost universally created, and looked upon, as weapons.  Nowhere in the superhero universe is there accountability with a spiritual being, and even Captain America's remarkable virtue of justice (a very old and American view flying in the teeth of the current American view of war-on-terror) looks pretty until you realize that it is functioning in a godless vacuum, and has no foundation.  Without a moral, supernatural being to put man in his proper place, man exists in a moral vacuum himself, and if pressed hard enough, cannot give an adequate explanation for his attempts at promoting morality over immorality.  There can be no virtue or heroism within a humanist universe, and that is why I always feel dissatisfied with the superhero films when I turn my back on the flash and the bang and can see clearly again.

I am a big fan of the series "Avatar: the Last Airbender."  For numerous reasons it is a lot of fun and I recommend it, but for the purpose of this post I want to focus on a single aspect of the story-arc.  Certain humans within "Avatar" have the ability to control the four elements (air, water, earth, fire), and are essentially superheros with super-human powers.  The show is very tongue-in-cheek and doesn't take itself too seriously, but I have noticed that within the (admittedly rather pantheistic) spirituality of "Avatar," there are souls, there are spirits, there is right, there is wrong, there is accountability, there is something supernatural above the supernatural "benders," and the benders are always considered human, but gifted (which prompts one to ask: from whom is the gift?).  While "Avatar" is incorrect in its Eastern theophilosophy, it gets a fundamental foundation correct which the American superheros fail to do.  In America, people with power over the elements are freaks, sub-human, and fated to be exploited as weapons.  In "Avatar," people with power over the elements are considered closer to their true human potential, and they find a harmony with the world in which they live.  Because there is Spirit dominating Man, and putting Man in his place, Man in his turn is able to adequately dominate Nature, and bends Nature to his will.

I think it's a very subtle aspect which is missing from the superhero stories, but I have always felt it missing and now I think I know what it is.  All the stories ring hollow when the last grenade goes off, and in "Avatar," somehow, they don't dissipate.  "Avatar's" benders come a little closer to the ideal Man, whose powers were forfeited and lost over the many generations between us and Adam, and the American superheros blunder about in a godless universe as walking miracles while simultaneously denying that miracles exist.  You must have a supernatural being, or man is lost and without hope in the dark: everything he does will be morally without foundation and meaningless, his actions will ultimately be hollow and might as well be self-centred and self-advantageous.

This poor world is anxious for harmony and it is terrified of us now.  I don't see anything more than flashy American ideals in the superheros, with chest-puffing and gun-slinging and rescuing old ladies' cats out of trees.  But in things like "Avatar" there is a recognition of a higher order, accountability to that order, and an understanding that a man with any power is to bring harmony as well as subjection to nature.  The universe is put in its proper hierarchical order.
what do you think about the super-human?

18 ripostes:

  1. Hmmm...I see your point. I myself adore superhero movies and superheroes in general, and in Captain America's defense I have to point out that he did say, "There is only one God, ma'am," in The Avengers (although it's, of course, a very small thing). One of the reasons I love superhero movies/stories is because they're the struggles of people who have been given/born with/acquired through technology superhuman powers, and they have to deal with them. They have to use them for good or evil. The right and wrong of their world has been heightened, and actual lives are at stake. I think most movies - especially Marvel superhero movies - deal well with this particular battle. They take our real, human struggles and project them on a metaphorical 'big screen,' where everything is bigger, bolder, and with larger-scale consequences.

  2. That is exactly what I love about superhuman stories: the stakes are huge, and people's lives are in jeopardy, and one has the choice either to use one's powers with honour and integrity, or to throw virtue to hell and take all one can with both hands. Because that is what the human life is like, only amplified with the introduction of the supernatural element.

    I have no beef with the characters of the superhero movies: it isn't their fault that the superhero universe is constructed without a supernatural being overarching souls and virtues and judgement. It's the fundamental godless construction of the universe which gives me that sorry aftertaste while at the same time I love the characters within the stories. Because without a god, things can't be bigger and bolder and have large-scale consequences. Nothing has consequence. And while the superhero stories are right, and you should always be good and honourable and defend the weak and the helpless and uphold justice and mercy, all those wonderful virtues are existing in a vacuum. In a way, the superheros are belying the existence of a god. They have no good foundation for being as awesome as they are without the immutable truths of divinity, righteousness, and human accountability.

    I hope that makes sense. I am all for supers. Don't get me wrong. ^_^

  3. Aha! I see your point. 'existing in a vacuum.' I think that's true - but I think it also depends on your worldview. As a Christian, the good vs. evil struggle doesn't seem pointless.
    Although I might be coming across as pointless myself, because my brain isn't up to snuff today. XD

  4. Good verses evil isn't pointless to us, because our philosophic framework fundamentally supports that. The problem, not with the superheros, but with their universe, is that they hold to Humanism, but also fundamentally hold to Virtue. The problem is, you can't get from Humanism to Virtue. If you insist on starting with Humanism, you will get to Judges, in which "every man did what was right in his own eyes." But if you need to have Virtue (which, let's face it, these are superheroes), you'll have to start with a different basic philosophy, one which admits ultimate truth and that man's actions have eternal as well as temporal consequences. Virtue is totally correct - you just can't get there from Humanism. XD

  5. *clappityclap* Yes, yes, and yes. <3

  6. Ahhhhh, this is a very interesting post. I agree, really. There is always something essential missing from superhero movies and though I do love to watch them, they aren't fulfilling. I haven't seen Avatar so I wouldn't know, but it is an interesting study, to realize that these things aren't exactly all there is to life and you are right: you must have a supernatural being... cool post. :)

  7. I agree with Jenny and find that the lack of God is the largest flaw in superhero movies (although a superhero movie with "God" only squeezed into it would be nearly as flawed). When God is a part of something, He changes it.
    I have not seen/read Avatar and can only speak from second-hand knowledge but I would like to use this opportunity to point out that the wrong god can be just as bad -- perhaps not from the perspective of the art-of-writing but certainly in general. Whether you choose humanism or imaginary forces to be your god, you still end up just as lost.

  8. Have you read Watchmen? You should read Watchmen. It's about as thoroughgoing a deconstruction of the √úbermensch and that particular brand of humanism as can be found in modern literature.

  9. Mm. I wasn't originally inclined to agree with you (I've always loved the triumph of good over evil, the generally good work ethic, etc. of superhero stories...) but I think you've finally convinced me. You are right: without a god, there is no cornerstone to a plot. And while I haven't seen Avatar, I do like that it seems to have a bit more reference to a divine being, which we all need in our stories.

    But it is also important to be aware of a Naturalist viewpoint, one with the earth and all that. Because that's not Christianity either.

    And I think what you said lined up with that - I just thought I ought to toss my two cents out there, in case anyone forgot I had them (not likely).

  10. Oh, I am so glad you brought this topic up, Jenny! And I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts :). As a disclaimer, I have to say, I have never watched superhero movies, and not even science-fiction (I know, I know - very shocking!), but it seems to me that despite there being a lot of wholesome adventure and this big 'fight' between forces, and good 'virtues' in those heroes who save the day, I have always felt, through my second-hand-knowledge of them, that they were greatly lacking and would in the end leave me quite empty, and disappointed as you pointed out: simply because there was no higher Order, no Providence or supernatural Divinity to direct the laws of humanity and 'gift' the superheroes with their powers of strength, power justice, etc... Superman becomes 'god' in the vaacum of the Divine and transcendent. And I think, for me, that is one of my most important guides to appreciating fully any work of fiction -- I am not saying that they have to be Christian, but that element of the supernatural really is important, and the hand of Providence must be at least a subtle but foundational thread in the tapestry of a tale (in fantasy, adventure, historical, science-fiction, etc...)

    At the same time, like Bound and Freed, I agree that a story that points to the wrong god(s) is not a very commendable alternative to no god at all - though I can definitely see how a film like Avatar would bring to light the absence of other superhero films. In a way, though, superhero films are intrinsically humanistic at their core, for they glorify the human, without the Divine... and Man, with God, is nothing.

    Uhm, that's why I love C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy and science-fiction works, etc.... they presented the splendor of man created in God's image, and their heroes did great things of wonder and justice, but not outside of the Providence and Hand of God. It would be interesting to see a Judeo-Christian Theistic worldview to be the bases for a super-hero story. Do you know of any?

    So glad you addressed this topic, as I have had this mind about it for a long while now :)

  11. I'm noticing a lot of you are concerned that I used "Avatar: the Last Airbender" as a counterpoint to the modern American super-hero, and not some overtly Christian story. I want to point out that I did that on purpose, because I wanted to put the idea of a human imbued with supernatural powers in a humanist world juxtaposed to a human imbued with supernatural powers within a world of divine hierarchy. Naturally, I believe that our God is the only God - that goes without saying. I deliberately chose a non-Judeo-Christian scenario in the hopes of showing that, even in a multi-theistic setting, a supernatural human's powers and ethics have legitimate context - whereas in a humanistic setting, they do not. In my choice of comparison I will defer momentarily to Aristotle in my defense: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

    Joy - As far as stories with people possessing superhuman powers within a Christian worldview (that sounds a little lame when I put it that way), yes, I know of a few novels. They just aren't published yet. :P

  12. *grins* they are the best!

  13. Oh, and I approve of what Aristotle said, and I understand what you mean by using Avatar. :)

  14. I have never liked superhero movies because I always felt them lacking and hollow. The old ones I could blame bad acting and scripts, but these new ones hitting the screens, though written and directed by highly acclaimed filmmakers, are the same, if better polished. And I couldn't ever put my finger on /why/. But I think you did.
    Perhaps now I can sit back and enjoy the absurdity of these movies knowing that itch has been scratched :)

  15. If Chewie could name an author for Watchmen I would be grateful. There is a comic book by that name and, while I've not read it, the movie version was recommended to me. Talk about dark, filthy, and horrific. I didn't even finish it. And it's rare that I do that. So now I'm wondering if we're thinking of the same story or not.

    As for the topic, it's a good point. I think, though, that the source material has (or at least, had) a more spiritual, even Christian, worldview base. Spiderman's aunt and uncle (who cared for him) always seemed to me like good Lutherans, perhaps. His uncle's saying, which became Spidey's tagline , is a paraphrase of Luke 12:48.

    Daredevil was raised Catholic and struggled with why God would allow him to be blinded. While his Catholicism is being pushed further and further back in this humanistic culture, it is still there.

    Nightcrawler spent most of his childhood being told he was spawn of the devil, yet continues unwavering devotion to Christ.

    I recently read a Wolverine comic that was all about his helping an old lady change her tire. The whole time, she was witnessing to him, telling him God heard even the most lost. The story ended with Wolverine walking into a church. In the X-men cartoon show, Wolverine is discovered in church, praying at the altar and thanking God for his blessings.

    God is not completely gone. To use my pastor's parable, if life is like a bicycle wheel, God is at worst one of the spokes (instead of the hub). We have not yet quite reached an entirely atheistic super-verse.

    P.S. While I get where you're coming from with Avatar, I actually had more trouble with a false god than I did with a missing God. Because I know that even if He isn't acknowledged, He is still there. He created the Mutants, he made sure that spider bit Peter Parker, he preseved Logan's life long enough for him to hear an old church lady tell him about Jesus. He blinded Matt Murdock, only to give him new sight to fight the corruption that those with eyes refused to see. He preserved Murdock through the accident so that he could reach out to a troubled girl and try to bring her out of the darkness. He saved and then woke Captain America so that he could remind the world that there is a God and He isn't to be mocked or replaced.

    That's the way I look at it, anyway.

  16. I think it's usually pretty obvious that any book-verse and any movie-verse will be different, often radically. In this particular post I am speaking to, and at this juncture can only speak to, the films. I am also bringing to bear an examination of history, in which there has been a stark difference between a civilization that is held accountable to a higher (presumably moral) power, and one that is solely humanistic. Very few people choose to examine their philosophies to their logical ends; very few people appreciate it when you take their philosophy and show them the logical ends. Unfortunately, in a universe such as is often presented in superhero films, the logical outcome is humanism. Simply watching a struggle such as is met by the Mutants in the X-Men films, one is prompted to ask, why are we defending these people? Why are they actually human (and even more importantly, why is a human being valuable)? The good people in these films do believe that the Mutants are special, and are still human, but their philosophies do not support that belief. They hold those beliefs out of a stubborn sense of morality which, logically, is unfounded. There might as well be no good reason for keeping dangerous Mutants alive (and e.g. the Nazi state, which is a memory we have not wholly lost sight of, even if we have sometimes forgotten the philosophies that brought a people to enact those atrocities).

    These are all theoretical. God did not create Mutants, and "Avatar" is not real. But the underlying philosophies (which should always be examined in everything, whenever possible) can be better or worse. Historically, a society which owns some respect to a moral hierarchical being has been stabler and safer than a society in which animal instincts (to tear apart or defend) have ruled the day. This is not really the way I look at it so much as these have been my socio-historical observations.

  17. I see what you mean. I think my problem is that I am unable, without serious effort, to fully enter into the worldview of the authors of these films, therefore I see God where they see none. Consequently, the actions which do not fit a humanistic worldview are natural to me, because I automatically dismiss any humanism expressed as the mistaken view of a character, not a description of the 'verse in which he exists.
    I cannot mentally divorce God from this world, even a fictional version thereof. If it was set in an entirely fictional, entirely other world, then I could, and that is likely why I have more trouble with Avatar. Because all I know of that world is what I'm told by the characters, and what they tell me is of a belief system which does not seem to reflect Truth in any way, other than that which you pointed out- that morality requires a higher power in order to exist.
    Not sure I'm making any sense. I hope I am. To sum up, I agree that humanism and virtue cannot live in harmony. However, I am all but incapable, personally, of entirely entering into a humanistic worldview and therefore rarely pick up on it as an over-arching philosophy, instead categorizing it as a character's/characters' personal misconception.

  18. To examine the philosophies presented to you and follow them through to their logical conclusion is what you should do, but let's face it, I'm the one who watched the James Cameron "Avatar" and totally missed the environmental aspect because subconsciously I dismissed it as untenable. XD